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Positive board influence

GPTW research 2016: findings from the latest survey of HR managers

The greater representation of HR managers at boardroom level in Ireland has led to a dampening down of personality and agenda-driven politics within top management teams.

This is one of the key findings from the latest survey of HR managers commissioned by Great Place to Work (GPTW). The study, led by the Leadership and Talent Institute at DCU Business School and Maynooth University, surveyed 110 senior HR professionals here during January on a range of topics, including strategic leadership, performance management, attracting and retaining talent and encouraging gender and age diversity. GPTW HR panel members were invited to review the findings at a meeting hosted by Dr Anne Sinnott, dean of DCU business school.

It is only relatively recently that HR managers were considered worthy of a permanent seat on boards of management of many Irish employers. This survey shows they are already having a positive influence by sharpening the focus of all managers on performance management issues, according to Patrick Flood, professor of organisational behaviour at DCU Business School and joint leader of the research panel.

The presence of HR professionals is also encouraging top management teams to follow through on processes, which, he says, has created another positive knock-on effect. “It helps to reduce the personal politics and the agenda-driven discussions by introducing more transparency around performance,” Prof Flood says.


Of the employers represented in the survey, which included multinationals, indigenous firms in all industry sectors and public sector organisations and semi-States, the HR boss is a member of the top management team in 87 per cent of them.

Prof Flood notes senior management teams in Ireland are often large by international standards, averaging about eight or nine. “In international terms, the optimal size for performance is around five because it is felt the bigger the team, the greater the risk of politics. But if you can get past the politics to focus on the issues, you’re able to have a much more performance-driven and focused team.”

Dr Na Fu, a lecturer in human resource management at Maynooth University and joint leader of the research panel, says management teams in multinationals tend to be more performance-driven, use more evidence-based HR decision-making and are less affected by politics than indigenous Irish firms. At the same time Irish firms are perceived to have more "balanced agendas", which she says is a good thing.

Another member of the research panel, Riccardo Peccei, is professor of organisational behaviour and human resource management at King's College London. He says when HR managers are not part of the top team, the job of managing people and performance suffers because it is HR managers who tend to "manage processes or make processes better".

Line managers

Line managers remain at the frontline in terms of the impact they have on how employees perceive HR practices. According to Dr Fu: “We looked at line managers’ capability to deal with things like underperformance and whether they can provide helpful feedback to their employees and, compared to last year, the capability part improved, but it is still somewhat low.”

“Research shows support from their senior leaders is the key factor driving all three elements of performance – ability, motivation and opportunity – so it’s very important to get that support.”

More generally, the survey confirms supporting managers in improving communication and delivering richer, more regular and focused feedback to their staff in performance reviews are among the very top priorities of HR bosses in 2016. “One of the things that came out across all the presentations was the importance of good, clear communication and also the importance of good feedback in the performance management of individuals,” Prof Flood says.

The survey shows while organisations use a wide range of performance-appraisal systems, there is growing recognition of the desire for more regular but shorter performance reviews rather than the more traditional annual or twice- yearly review.

Gender balance

Multinational corporations tend to be more predisposed to having regular conversations about performance, but a greater focus on performance may itself be part of the reason why they also have a better gender balance in their top management teams, Prof Flood adds. Evidence indicates the presence of more women on top teams improves both process and performance.

“We’re seeing, in the multinational corporations which are facing into very competitive markets globally, there’s tremendous pressure that is driving a greater focus on performance.” However, data shows Irish firms have a better gender balance than multinationals in top management.

“You’re looking at a lot of younger, high-tech companies – IT particularly – where the balance of younger women in management roles is higher, so it’s like a second wave happening - that’s very positive,” says Prof Flood.

However, panel member Dr Janine Bosak, head of research at DCU's Leadership and Talent Institute, says specific measures to promote gender diversity in Irish management are still fairly rare, mainly because it is not perceived by many to be a priority.

She says it is more commonplace to pick from a set list of interventions that would focus more broadly on making a company a good place to work, such as more flexible arrangements or working hours, as opposed to measures designed specifically to help redress the gender imbalance, such as gender quotas.

Fewer than 3 per cent of respondents say they instigated “harder” measures in theirown workplaces, such as gender quotas in hiring, retaining or promoting people, or skill-building programmes aimed specifically at women.

“But there are certain specific interventions for women in place, such as networking opportunities, mentoring and so on – these are some of the kinds of steps that are being taken at the moment,” Dr Bosak says.

The problem with quotas is that recruitment, retention or promotion must be seen to be about merit. “Women often tend not to like gender quotas because they don’t want to be promoted to higher positions just to fulfil the quota, but because they deserve to be there. This is a very important statement. There is, indeed, research showing quotas might backfire - they can undermine women’s self-confidence when, and only when, women are told they have been hired or advanced on the basis of gender and not on the basis of talent.

“Further, women hired under affirmative action practices are often seen as less deserving of their position. On the other hand, progress relating to gender balance in leadership and diversity in the workplace is very slow and might ultimately require gender quotas.”

Ageing workforce

The survey also looks at issues relating to the ageing workforce and finds a lack of awareness of the potential issues over loss of talent, with nearly half of respondents stating it is not currently a problem.

Dr Bosak says Ireland, in comparison to some other European countries, does not experience as much of a drop in its birth rate and, combined with the recent net immigration and integration, has led to the perception that it is not a pressing issue.

However, just over 40 per cent recognise loss of talent due to age as a “potential problem”, with 26 per cent of firms “beginning to examine internal policies and management practices to address this change”.

“In terms of specific actions to retain and recruit older workers, we are starting to see small percentages of companies beginning to get proactive in this area,” Dr Bosak adds.

Of those who have already undertaken measures to retain or recruit older workers, the survey shows that most of them have offered reduced or part-time hours or the opportunity to be hired as consultants or on a temporary basis.

Attracting talent

In terms of attracting talent, companies are spreading their efforts across all mediums, including social media, online job ads and recruitment agencies.

Prof Flood notes newspapers have seen their currency in this field drop considerably, but that papers such as The Irish Times have been embracing a digital strategy in terms of recruitment ads to keep pace with the fast-changing nature of this space.

The survey shows the diversity of ways to advertise job openings, including video interviews, online networking events like webinars. Social media is also playing a huge role, not surprisingly.

Firms in Ireland failing to deal with poor performance

Many top management teams here are failing to deal adequately with managers or staff who perform poorly, according to a new survey of senior HR professionals.

The Great Places to Work annual survey of 110 senior HR professionals, working in both multinationals and domestic firms as well as the public sector, found that the failure to deal with underperformance – particularly the lack of skills to have “tough conversations” – was one of the top three issues facing them.

When asked what one thing they would do to support managers to change in 2016, they would encourage them to manage poor performance better.

“This shows that it’s very hard to have the conversation about moving people on,” says Prof Patrick Flood of the Leadership and Talent Institute at DCU Business School.

In addition, when asked to rate how they felt about a number of statements on the theme of strategic leadership, the one that the fewest respondents agreed with was “the top management team regularly reviews its membership to make necessary changes”.

The ability to deal with underperformance is not just an issue at senior management level, he adds.

“Across all levels, there is a tendency certainly within Irish organisations, whether they are multinational or indigenous, to shy away from having very candid conversations about performance and also off-loading that performance problem to HR to solve when really it’s a management issue.”

Riccardo Peccei, professor of organisational behaviour and human resource management at King’s College London and a member of the research panel, remarks that Ireland seems to stand out a little in this regard compared with other jurisdictions.

“That issue would be seen in very different ways in companies in other countries, where there wouldn’t be that level of concern because maybe low performance is managed in a more effective way.”

Survey results at a glance

1 The presence of HR at boardroom level is helping to cut down on personality- or agenda-driven politics within top management teams, partly by sharpening the focus on performance management issues.

2 Many firms in Ireland are failing to deal with underperformance at all levels, including management.

3 Employees and managers are showing a growing preference for richer, regular and more focused feedback rather than the traditional once- or twice-yearly reviews.

4 Specific measures to promote gender diversity in management are still rare.

5 There is a lack of awareness of the potential HR issues of the ageing workforce.

6 Companies are using more channels, including social media, to attract talent.